Banished! Are parents who follow their hearts left out in the cold?
A recurring theme has come to my attention through my work as a psychotherapist as well as through social contact with other parents. There is a disturbing phenomenon relating to what happens to many mums and dads who choose more "natural", child-centered approaches to parenting. When parents are criticized for neglecting their children - though criticism is a poor teacher - one is at least not surprised. But when parents are denounced, dissuaded or even shamed for choosing to be more nurturing, this seems astonishing. It appears that, frequently, those who try "natural" parenting risk finding themselves alone, judged or marginalized.
In a nutshell, "natural" parenting, (a.k.a. "continuum" parenting, or "attachment" parenting), means trusting and following your babies' need-cues, rather than forcing them to fit in with your schedules. Generally, it might feature touchstones such as demand-feeding, self-weaning (sometimes as late as 4 years or older), co-sleeping and self-paced toilet training. It means setting boundaries without resort to shaming or punishment. Many parents enjoy mature and mutually respectful relationships with their children as a result of having used empathy and understanding, rather than demanding submission. Around the world, parents are turning to such child-centered methods in increasing numbers.
If you practice a more "natural" style of parenting, whether through conviction or by way of exploration, you could encounter considerable resistance. At a time of life that should be about community support and shared joy; for many who try to parent differently it is a time of excommunication and ostracism. It can be astounding what a passionately hostile reaction "natural" mothering can evoke in some onlookers. The result appears to be a sub-culture of outcasts who are hiding and alone. There is significant social and professional pressure to conform, to not exceed the limits of nurturance that our community feels comfortable with. This has led many "natural" parents to cloak themselves in secrecy.
What follows are some examples of the experiences that parents have shared with me.
One mother recounted how her choice to breastfeed her daughter after 6 months was frowned upon by in-laws. During family visits, she was compelled to leave the room in embarrassment each time she needed to nurse. She felt condemned, saddled with judgements and criticism. She had hoped to be surrounded by sympathetic others who would celebrate her mothering and instead was shunned and put down. Her longing for communal celebration of her mother-child bond was un-met. The sense of supportive extended family was compromised by her wish to better nurture her daughter.
Breastfeeding in public places brought its own anguish. Plagued by people's "nasty stares", she became a breastfeeding refugee. Restaurateurs would usher her to the office, some even bid her to nurse in the toilet! It took a lot of courage, but eventually she developed a thick enough skin to breastfeed anywhere, vowing to put hers and her baby's needs first. She made a firm decision to let people around her be responsible for their own prejudices. Though she felt stronger, she still felt besieged, and was still stung by others' disapproving stares.
By the time her daughter reached 18 months, she found herself doing all she could to keep her breastfeeding secret and confidential. Friends who found out that she was still allowing her daughter to suckle began to accuse her of "clinginess" or "separation anxiety". Her own mother stepped into the ring, telling her that what she was doing was shameful.
In the second and third year, her friends' reactions to her breastfeeding were of outright ridicule and humiliation. She survived being a laughing stock through the support of Nursing Mothers Association, and the unfailing protection from her husband.
Another mother described her family's reaction to her breastfeeding her two year-old, as one of vigorous shaming and disapproval. A breastfeeding prohibition was imposed at her parents' house, with admonitions such as: "don't do it within our sight", "not at the table", or "take him to another room!" She painfully recalls the debasement of having her breast viewed - by her family - with absolute disgust. Members of her family accused her of "being weak", and of allowing herself to be "manipulated" by her child. She felt totally isolated, at times even harassed. Stigmatization eventually gave way to direct interference and sabotage. Her mother-in-law took the child aside and told her that she was not allowed to feed at mummy's breast any more. The little one came home crying and begging not to be taken to her granny's any more.
Co-sleeping can also attract scorn. A couple who shared a bed with their child until he was four, also kept this a secret because of friends' mockery and derision. The dire warnings flowed thick and fast, in recurring themes: "You'll create a rod for your own back!" "You'll never get him out of your bed!", "You're nuts!". None of these warnings materialized into realities. They found members of the older generation more adamant - not one of them was accepting of their sleeping arrangement. Interestingly, it seemed to them that even among younger folk only a minority were supportive. What was bewildering to them was the passion with which the attacks came. Some people exploded into indignation, outrage, as if a great injustice were being committed. Why, they asked, did they react as if personally offended by this couple's choice to venture outside the unwritten norms? For years, their co-sleeping was kept secret, they simply went underground and avoided the topic of sleeping arrangements in conversation. Not immune to self-doubt under pressure, sometimes they wondered if they were cranks who were abusing their child. Now, years later, when they talk about it openly, they still find few people that don't react with disapproval. Sadly, what resembles a conspiracy of secrecy prevented them, like many others, from enjoying the support of like-minded parents who have also run for cover.
Many parents similar to the above come to the dire conclusion that their friends, family and larger community would not support them in their efforts to be attentively tuned in to their children's needs. They would have met none of the vitriol if they had stayed within the limits prescribed by their family and peers. They chose isolation over the feeling of betraying their beliefs, and betraying their kids.
A "continuum"-oriented mother found to her great surprise that other mothers were her harshest critics. Though she had expected that her friends who were also parents would be supportive of her efforts to be attentive to her children; to her dismay they seemed to be, if anything, encouraging her to tear herself free of them. Incredibly, she found that other parents were much more critical of her devotion toward her children than the friends who had no kids. This is by no means an unusual account. Could it be that to witness "natural" parenting can stir in the beholder feelings of inadequacy, or guilt?
It is difficult enough to resist the pressure to conform when this pressure comes from friends and family. When coercion comes from health or legal professionals, the effects can be all the more damaging. For example, one mother told me that suckling her sons until they were two and four respectively was done in spite of her doctor, who several times insisted that she stop. She was unable to understand why her doctor had so emphatically and repeatedly cautioned her to wean her kids against both her and their wishes, particularly as she was not seeking parenting advice. Another doctor urged her to smack her son and keep him still, because he was playfully running in and out of the office. He had not touched anything, yet his exuberance was offensive to the doctor, who somehow presumed a need for discipline. Though she refused to smack the boy, she felt too shocked and intimidated to protest. These experiences have made her extremely prudent and hesitant when selecting a medical practitioner. The vulnerability of sitting in the patient's chair can amplify the impact of unsolicited and repugnant advice.
The most appalling story that I have been told involves the possibility of serious legal consequences for a mother's choice of "continuum" methods. A Family Court counselor took the liberty to diagnose the nursing mother of a four-year old as "over-anxious", and suffering from an "attachment disorder". This diagnosis is utterly baseless, unfounded, and contradicted by current literature. It is personal prejudice, pure and simple, and amounts to persecution. The notes taken by the counselor could have devastating effects in terms of custody implications. This mother faces increased risk of reduced custody; for choosing to parent in a way that extends beyond the norm. Should we be afraid to demonstrate a more intensive nurturance than our doctors, lawyers or counselors feel comfortable with?
Many parents who follow more "natural" methods are forced underground, unaware of all the others out there trying to follow their instincts in isolation. They can end up feeling like outcasts and crackpots in a world that wants to diagnose them and correct them. I wish I had a penny for every time I have heard a parent bemoan their distaste for "controlled crying" or similar prescribed techniques that require ignoring their child's cries. These parents feel deprived of support for their beliefs. Unable to find alternatives, they languish under the pressure to conform and wear the team colors. I've had mothers call me and say they felt isolated, diminished, and ridiculed in mother's groups for stating that they couldn't bring themselves to let their babies cry themselves to sleep. It seems in vogue these days to advise parents that they must cultivate the "strength" to turn away from your baby's cries for attention; whereas to go to the baby is described as "caving in" or being "weak".
A first-time mother who had been under the mistaken impression that she was supposed to get her baby to sleep after every feed, approached her local clinic for advice. They accepted her complaints at face value without questioning or challenging her unrealistic expectations of herself and her baby. She was instructed to put her baby down to sleep separately in a cot, and to refuse comforting for as long as she could stand it. Her tolerance limit for this method was low, having made a few attempts.
Well-meaning friends' questions were totally focused on her baby's sleep habits: "is she a good baby, does she sleep?" The relentless quizzing from her family and peers about whether her baby was sleeping through the night left her feeling like her and her baby were failures. She became painfully aware that others' interests focused on how hard or easy her baby made life for her. This depressed her. "Nobody seemed to want to know if she was a happy baby, did she communicate and interact?", she said. Feeling that the world expected her baby to be a sleep-champion, she ended up lying to people about her child's sleep habits.
Concerned about not having met the world's expectations, she returned to the clinic when her little one was 5 months old. She asked for a method other than having to leave her child to cry unattended. The nurse promptly informed her that if she was unable to let the baby cry herself to sleep alone, this meant she was suffering from "separation anxiety", and "post-natal depression". Without her knowledge or consent, she was placed on a waiting list for psychiatric treatment. Her mothering instincts were categorized as a mental illness. She didn't attend the psychiatric session, and never has returned to any clinic, remaining mistrustful. Gleefully, she now reports that her growing toddler seems more independent and outgoing than many others of her age. She is enjoying frequent breaks while her daughter happily interacts with others for longer and longer periods. This rebuts the grim warnings from her friends and family against holding her baby whenever she cried. "You'll stunt her growth!", they had admonished, "she'll remain totally clingy and you'll never get rid of her!", and: "you're not preparing her for the real world!".
There is a persistent and popular fear, abetted by many health professionals and parenting authors, that the baby who is given what he or she cries for will be "spoiled", forever clingy and dependent. This fear of the "devouring baby" is irrational, but real and intense nonetheless. To those that suffer from this fear, the mere sight of a baby being pleasurably nursed, or the mere mention of a family sharing a bed, can produce profound anxiety. When we are overwhelmed by the huge demands of parenting, what we really need is additional support so that we can meet the child's need for love. Too often we choose instead to create cultural agreement for suppressing the child's needs. In other words, when it feels too difficult, usually the baby is made wrong and is thought to need re-training in some way. If the baby doesn't sleep when you want him to, there is something wrong with him. If she wants to breastfeed longer than one or two years, she is clingy and needs discipline. If he wants to sleep in bed with you, he is disrespectful and too dependent. And if you want to meet these needs, you are an over-anxious or neurotic parent.
The reasons why "attachment" parents and their children are viewed with disdain may be several and complex. Perhaps the possibility of deeper intimacy with our children can feel threatening if we already feel exhausted. It may be that exposure to "natural" parenting painfully reminds us of what we ourselves didn't receive as children. We tend to misguidedly get angry at those who trigger these feelings in us, we blame them and condemn them. The comparatively liberal ways of "continuum"-oriented families seem out of synch in our over-controlling world. They evoke, in others who are more conservative, a kind of culture-shock.
Often what is thought of as "normal" is a reflection of our cultural bias, and has nothing to do with what babies and children actually need. For instance, until recently, six months of breastfeeding was considered sufficient and reasonable. In fact, six months was even deemed a bonus for the baby given that, over the 20th century, multinational producers of baby formula had duped most of the world into abandoning breastfeeding altogether.
Humanity is better coming to terms with the fact that children are children, and not small adults. As we learn how to enjoy and appreciate children for what they are, many of our old notions of "discipline" are going the way of the dinosaurs. Child-rearing is certainly undergoing some very positive and revolutionary changes.
Nevertheless, much of our world continues to be indifferent, at times even hostile, to parents who
wish to follow more "natural" or "continuum" methods. I believe a far higher proportion
of parents would be aspiring to "natural" parenting if our society more adequately supported
it. Here's just a few suggestions: legislated provisions to promote breastfeeding at the workplace,
tax incentives for grandparent assistance to families, "natural" parenting featured in the
mainstream media to give it an image of normalcy, a directory of health professionals who support and
understand "natural" parenting, and Medicare rebates for home-visits by lactation consultants.
In the long term, measures such as these would indirectly produce savings by far outstripping the costs.
Until mainstream business and health-care become more supportive of "natural" parenting, those
who are committed to this style of parenting need to create this support for themselves. It can be of
enormous benefit either to join or to create your own like-minded support groups. Information such as
lists of health practitioners who are sympathetic to "natural" parenting, and relevant literature,
can be efficiently disseminated through group-networking. Support groups can also be an invaluable source
of moral and emotional sustenance. Even when isolated, those who practice "natural" parenting
are certainly not alone.
Recommendation: I found Jan Hunt's book The Natural Child: Parenting From the Heart to be highly informative, inspiring and supportive to natural parenting.
Robin Grille is a Sydney-based psychologist. He has a private practice in individual psychotherapy and relationship counseling. For further information and articles, visit Robin's website and blog hearttoheartparenting.org.
Robin Grille's book Parenting for a Peaceful World (Longueville Media, 2005) is available from Amazon.
This article originally appeared in Sidney's Child, Sidney, Australia.